Having only been on release for a mere two weeks, Netflix’s latest binge watch sensation, Stranger Things, is already gaining an inordinate amount of column inches and social media traction. Part thriller, part science fiction, part nostalgia trip, its stylish blend of retro aesthetic and Spielbergian adventure is connecting with a lot of people. But does Stranger Things live up to the hype? You bet it does.
Stranger Things, without giving too much away, is a 1980s-set coming-of-age science fiction adventure. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing on his way home from playing Dungeons & Dragons with his three friends, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). Their quiet, sleepy town is rattled, but the three friends refuse to give up on Will and set out to find him themselves. Instead, they encounter Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a mysterious, shaven-headed girl who harbours a dark past and a secret telekinetic ability. Together they pledge to uncover the truth of what happened to Will, and remain out of reach of the suspicious government agents and their secretive compound on the outskirts of the town.
Wearing its heart proudly on its sleeve, Stranger Things takes us on an adventure in the grand Spielberg tradition. It’s most inescapable influence is E.T., but it nods its head respectfully in the direction of Stand By Me, The Goonies, J.J. Abrams retro yarn Super 8, Dungeons & Dragons, Frank Darabont’s sublime take on The Mist, and even the old H.R. Giger-designed computer game Dark Seed.
But this does not make Stranger Things derivative or clichéd. Far from it. Too many 80s throwbacks miss the point of their nostalgia and concentrate wrongly on the naff or the passé. Stranger Things understands its influences and puts its own mark on the genre. The nostalgia is a stylistic device, a medium to enhance its existing strengths – great characters and a taut plotline. Remove the homage and you still have a riveting piece of original science fiction on your hands.
From the opening pre-credits sequence, establishing the dynamic of our heroes’ friendship, and the disappearance of Will Byers, Stranger Things has you hooked. By the time the Stephen King-esque credits and synth-heavy score have finished beeping and pulsing at you, all they need to do is reel you in.
The Duffer Brothers have crafted a tight, eight-episode masterpiece. Too many great series have faltered trying to fill obligations to length instead of quality. Netflix’s own Daredevil, for example, would have benefitted greatly from a more expedient first series. But there’s not an ounce of fat on Stranger Things. Not a second is wasted and everything services the tight, contradiction-free plot, epitomising the old showbiz maxim of leaving the audience wanting more.
A large part of why Stranger Things works so well is the performances. If the central relationships are not convincing, then the whole thing collapses. So it is pleasing to report there is not a weak link in the cast. From the four principal friends, right down to the ice cold G-Men, the depth of these characters is one of Stranger Things’ greatest strengths. Winona Ryder is exceptional as Joyce Byers, mother of the missing Will. She gravitates between unhinged desperation and a stone-cold conviction that her son will be found. Ryder is a brilliant actor and it’s great to see her get her acting chops around a part that has way more to it than a mere ‘worried mother’ archetype. Joyce is complex, driven, flawed.
David Harbour (best known to most as Elliot Hirsch in The Newsroom) is excellent as Jim Hopper, the small town cop broken by personal tragedy. His investigation into Will’s disappearance is as much for his own redemption as it is to help his friend, Joyce.
Mathew Modine lurks on the sidelines as the head of the shadowy government organisation. He’s a silver-haired bastard. A callous, manipulative Man In Black.
But the real triumph of Stranger Things is the relationships between the four main friends – in both their existing dynamic, and how they react to monosyllabic newcomer Eleven. Dustin is the optimist, Lucas is the sceptic and Mike is the leader. They are dynamite. But Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard’s performances are the standouts that deserve special mention. Without giving anything away, there is an episode late on where Eleven and Mike share a moment, and the entire weight of the scene relies on their reactions. Their youth belies their ability, and it is masterful.
On top of all this, there are the little details that let you know what a clear labour of love this project is: posters for The Thing and the Evil Dead lurking in the background; episode headings evoking chapters from a Stephen King novel; the score’s neo-Carpenter synth stylings (composed by one half of electronic band Survive); and Kyle Lambert’s promotional poster design harking back to the seminal work of Drew Struzan.
Stranger Things provides a perfect example of the distinction between homage and derivative nostalgia cash-in. It is much more than a love letter to its influences. It has a cool visual identity and style of its own, and as with any great movie, book or series, nuanced characters and a compelling plot will win out above all else. Believe the hype, Stranger Things is essential viewing.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10